Cavalleria Rusticana baritone / SAT 11-25-17 / Devil Hatfield Kevin Costner / Musician with 1963 gold-selling album Honey in the Horn / Portraitist with Baltimore museum named after him / Beverage brand whose logo depicts three claw marks / Siempre much covered 1965 song about Che Guevara

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Constructor: Kevin G. Der

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: PAMPAS CAT (27D: Striped or spotted animal named for its habitat) —
The Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo) is a small wild cat native to South America that is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List as habitat conversion and destruction may cause the population to decline in the future. It is also known as the colocolo or Pantanal cat over parts of its range. It is named after the Pampas, but occurs in grassland, shrubland, and dry forest at elevations up to 5,000 m (16,000 ft). [...] The Pampas cat is a small, but heavy-set cat. (wikipedia)
• • •
Low word count. Hard for the sake of hard. Not my favorite puzzle type. This Is Why I Need Fridays to Be Fridays—Bouncy, lively themelesses! Tough, but doable. Pleasurable. I would be happy if Saturdays were like this too, but Fridays are my most-liked day because they tend (more than other days) to be in that sweet spot, that Goldilocks Zone: tough but not unpleasantly tough. And free from the restraints of themes that often don't pay off. Today, 60 words, and clues (as well as fill) that were designed to be not clever but brutal. Dealing in vagueness and obscurity. The worst of this came in the NW, where ANSE and ALFIO made me want to quit right there. Never heard of either. I had FEEL -A-E staring at me for 3D: Have peace of mind and I just shook my head and prayed that something would come to me. Didn't take long for SAFE to drop in there, but ugh, ANSE, ALFIO, that's just horrible. Going this low in the word count just isn't worth it most of the time. The stacks in the NW and SE are pretty good—the Acrosses, at least. Well, they're solid, anyway. The NW > the SE, which holds up, but doesn't shine. SPILL BLOOD over TEAR INTO adds some vivid, brutal energy to the puzzle, which is nice. But mainly this felt like a slog. Trivia about LAREDO, ridiculous clues for common stuff like OTTER (?!) ("known to chase its tail?"—my parents live near Monterey, I've seen lots and lots of OTTER activity ... never that). I felt like I only finished in reasonable time because I just happened to know dumb **** like what the MONSTER logo looks like (37D: Beverage brand whose logo depicts three claw marks). Things started out very promising ...

... but then frequently ground to a halt. I have no idea what a PAMPAS CAT is, and I'm guessing you haven't either. Also, I still don't think I understand how the clue for TABLET PC works (38A: Consumers want to get their hands on it). Far and away the roughest answer for me, even after I had TABLET--. I thought it was TABLE TOP, for a bit, to be honest. I get that a TABLET PC has a touch screen, so you use your hands on it ... but you use your hands on all computers. I'm using my hands on this ordinary laptop right now (OK, I'm actually using a wireless keyboard, but I could *easily* be using the laptop's own keyboard). I spaced on John MCCLANE's last name, despite having rewatched "Die Hard" just a few months ago. Wanted that second letter to be "C," but TABLE T-C made no sense. TABLE TIC!? Again, if PAMPAS CAT had been an actual animal anyone knew anything about, my problems here might've been avoided. Anyway, the lesson is, don't get cute with your clues unless the solver's gonna get a solid "aha" out of it.

My great coup was getting LAREDO off just the "D" and BATALI off just the "L" (despite knowing nothing about jalapeño contests or "Iron Chef"). The only PEALE I know is Norman Vincent, so this [Portraitist...] guy was rough. I put in LALO off the initial "L," but kept doubting it, thinking I'd confused the [Contemporary of Sain-Saëns] with a modern film composer (turns out I was thinking of LALO Schifrin ... so the confusion was merited). Lots of proper nouns today, which meant the puzzle was heavy on trivia, light on cleverness / wordplay. I resent 40D: Opportunity for people to act badly? as B-MOVIE refers to lower-budget films, not bad acting, and bad acting in high-budget films abounds. Some of my best friends are B-MOVIEs, is what I'm saying. [Producer of loose leaf notes?] was about as close as any clue got to cleverness. Why do lines form quickly for SLAM POETS? Is "quickness" an essential part of slam poetry? Can a slam poet not recite at a normal, non-quick pace? Clearly these clues just aren't working for me. Maybe they made more intuitive sense to the rest of you all. I hope so.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Dish whose name means pierce flesh / Scifi series before DS9 / Brave person typically / Fitbit had one in 2015 / Attraction on bank of Yamuna River / Literary orphan who lived for while in cupboard

Friday, November 24, 2017

Constructor: Bruce Haight and David Steinberg

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

THEME: three hats, or one hat falling through space in one way or another...FLIPPING ONE'S LID (17A: Snapping ... as suggested by some black squares in this puzzle) / AT THE DROP OF A HAT (58A: With only slight provocation ... as suggested by some black squares in this puzzle), and there is a black square pattern through the middle of the grid that suggests a "flipping" or "dropping" hat, allegedly...

Word of the Day: The AGATHA Awards (46D: Name on an annual literary award) —
The Agatha Awards, named for Agatha Christie, are literary awards for mystery and crime writers who write in the cozy mystery subgenre (i.e. closed setting, no sex or violence, amateur detective). At an annual convention in Washington, D.C., the Agatha Awards are handed out by Malice Domestic Ltd, in six categories: Best Novel; Best First Mystery; Best Historical Novel; Best Short Story; Best Non-Fiction; Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery. Additionally, in some years the Poirot Award is presented to honor individuals other than writers who have made outstanding contributions to the mystery genre, but it is not an annual award. (wikipedia)
• • •
  • A. themed Fridays are almost always unwelcome—it's the Best Chance for a good and crunchy puzzle I'm going to get all week, and themes just spike the likelihood of corny cruddiness
  • B. that "hat" thing with the black squares might be a "flip," but is IN NO WAY a "drop" 
  • C. that "flip" is rotating in what feels to me like the wrong direction
  • D. that is barely a "hat"
And just now, I figured out what was bugging me. I *knew* something was off. It's the damned center hat—it's Not Centered. That is some nails-on-my-mental-chalkboard stuff. See how MAIN SQUEEZE (6D: Steady) comes all the way through, but there's no equivalent long answer in the eastern half? That was the first thing that made me wonder what was up. Why not make this 16 wide? I mean, maybe there are things I haven't considered, but centering that damned hat feels crucial. The damned puzzle has the word CENTER in it ... and yet that damned middle hat is like "screw you guys, I'ma do what I wanna do!" ALD, NONPROS, and esp. ENPLANE (which is one of my evil nemesis words) can take a hike, but otherwise the fill is totally reasonable. Steinberg is an old pro (despite being the far younger constructor here), so you get some fill discipline, which is nice. But give me a Steinberg themeless any day over this. Or put this on a Thursday and for god's sake *center the hat*!

There was nothing particularly hard about this, and no genuine sticking points that I can see. I think MTA and CENTER, weirdly, gave me more trouble than anything else. I've been to NYC enough and been an public transport enough that you'd think MTA woulda sunk in pretty far by now, but I thought there was something Staten Island-specific about the answers, so MTA actually never occurred to me (52A: Staten Island Railway inits.). But otherwise, this was easy to zip through. Not sure why my time wasn't closer to a record (I was somewhere in the mid-5s). HOP IMPS SNOOT GOAT QATAR, in that order, all fairly quickly. And once you've got a "Q," you know you're on your way. Then that "Q" led to a "Z." And so forth. Normally, crushing a puzzle gives me at least a mild predisposition to like it. But today, no such outcome. Not badly made, just thematically off (and off-center).

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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